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Since 1990, the work of site design group, ltd. has strengthened and beautified communities across Chicago. We spoke with Ernie Wong, Principal, to learn more about what inspires his transformative work in architecture and design.

by Nikki Snodgrass, Media Relations Manager

The parks, streetscapes, urban planning projects and institutions by site design group, ltd. are acclaimed for their positive physical, social and economic impact. Each design is clearly inspired by the philosophy that architecture can transform environments while maintaining the identity and integrity of the environment in which they are built. Ping Tom Memorial Park, 1K Fulton, Palmisano Park and Chinatown Branch Library are among the many projects that express design excellence and encourage community leadership.

1. What project have you enjoyed working on most during your career thus far?

Palmisano Park in Bridgeport is my most satisfying project. It has been exhilarating to transform a decrepit construction debris dump site into a thriving oasis of prairie, wetland and recreational space. The scale and the environmental aspect was informative and enriching for me personally, and for the firm. I’m always surprised to see how people utilize and engage with this space, whether fishing in the pond, doing tai chi on the mound or running the hills. The fact that you don’t even know you’re in the city is revealing, and to see the project as a model of a new urban park fills me with pride.

2. What do public spaces do for an urban environment?

The impact is tremendous. It changes the perception of a utilitarian right-of-way into an activity hub. We see this with “places for people” that influence how people move through and use public space. I am currently involved with the Wabash Arts Corridor project that engages street artists all over the world. The murals and light installations have transformed South Wabash Avenue into the largest collection of curated street art in the Midwest. It’s an outdoor museum, free to the public, and livening the South Loop into a laboratory of fun.

We have designed major parks such as Mary Bartelme Park and Palmisano Park, and the presence of undulating hills and topography in an otherwise flat Chicago is exciting. We are delighted to see these spaces embraced by the communities they serve, and how the identity of each neighborhood is defined by the park or infused in the park design.

3. What would you say is the most uniquely challenging project type?

Each project has its own challenges. We remain steadfast that our designs can withstand changes and enable future growth. Some of our most challenging yet satisfying project types are the streetscapes that change neighborhoods, such as the Argyle Shared Street, Lincoln Hub at Wellington and Lincoln and the 58th Street/Ellis Pedestrian Corridor at the University of Chicago. We are also leading the nation in “nature play”: Building play spaces that utilize natural elements such as tree stumps and logs, boulders and water, which exposes kids to their natural environment in a challenging and inquisitive way.

4. How has Chicago influenced or inspired your work?

I grew up on Chicago’s Southside, the son of Y.C. Wong, FAIA, a student of Mies van der Rohe. I always wanted to design in the public realm, a far departure from the extreme private interiors that my father mastered. Over the years, however, we’ve learned to meld the two. The contrast and the merging of indoor and outdoor spaces should always speak to each other.

Our current work with Diller Scofidio + Renfro at the University of Chicago is a perfect example of interiors and exteriors interacting in a balanced, contrasting manner. Chicago’s variety of architectural styles and materials also influences our work. Limestone and masonry,glass curtain walls and steel, the solidity of stone and the reflectivity of glass start to influence how we approach exterior spaces. Scale and proportion inform us of plant materials to select, while building entrances and window locations determine textures, color and areas of focus.

5. Does architecture have a civic role?

Architecture, as a discipline, is about problem-solving. All cities have their own challenges and the knowledge and systematic problem-solving that architects bring to the table can be priceless. While the former Mayor Daley had numerous architects running agencies and city departments, this current administration has none. Design professionals leading a major department brings a different perspective to the city. It’s also necessary for architects to take a stronger role in our political system, thus enhancing the role and breadth of the profession.